Charles Fee, Producing Artistic Director, Great Lakes Theater Festival


Theater artists tend to revere ghosts, and Charles Fee, producing artistic director of Great Lakes Theatre Festival since 2002, is no exception. Not the boo-scary kind of ghosts, mind you; rather, the palpable presence of great but deceased individuals whose memorable contributions to theater came as playwrights or producers, actors or innovators, directors or designers . . . or, well, divas.

Ask Fee to elaborate on his affinity for history, and he’ll point to his, his board’s and his company’s deep love for classical theater, first and foremost. The mission of Great Lakes Theater Festival (GLTF) has been and will be to produce the classics: Shakespeare predominantly, as one might expect, but also the likes of Chekov, Coward, Goldsmith, Molière, Shaw, Sondheim and Wilde.

“I stand on the shoulders of the founders of the company and previous artistic directors who have all brought extraordinarily good work to this company and built a real tradition of producing the classics in Cleveland,” Fee asserted.

Holder of a bachelor’s degree from the University of the Pacific and an M.F.A. from the University of California, San Diego, Fee has worked with such companies as The Old Globe Theatre, La Jolla Playhouse and the Los Angeles Shakespeare Festival. He also served as artistic director of the Sierra Repertory Theatre in northern California.

Brought to Cleveland by a faltering GLTF, located in the Ohio Theatre on Playhouse Square since 1980, Fee welcomed the significant challenge of restoring the theater to financial health and restoring it to a place of theatrical prominence in northeastern Ohio. His innovative approaches to producing theater, including joint productions with the Idaho Shakespeare Festival, where he has worked as producing artistic director since 1991, rescued GLTF from serious financial instability that once threatened the survival of downtown Cleveland’s primary classical theater

The former program director for cultural affairs of The Cleveland Foundation, Kathleen A. Cerveny, has expressed admiration for Fee’s ability to bring Great Lakes back to solvency with no loss in artistic quality. “Great Lakes is one of few performing arts organizations in Cleveland to not only balance its budget each year, but also to maintain a level of working capital that safeguards it against incurring short-term debt and that supports necessary artistic risk-taking,” she observed. “The consistent positive reviews and the theater’s growth in audience numbers over time is testament to the quality and excitement that Charlie has advanced.”

Coming to believe that the the Ohio Theatre was too large, Fee successfully led a nearly $20 million campaign to renovate PlayhouseSquare’s Hanna Theatre, an historic Broadway show house, into an intimate, audience-friendly space with the latest in high-tech production capabilities, such as hydraulic lifts to raise and lower all or part of the thrust stage. 

By embracing the Hanna's storied past, Fee has set an even high bar for GLTF. Its new home has an inspiring provenance. Built in 1921, the Hanna has hosted such theater royalty as Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne, Noel Coward and Stanislavski and his Moscow Art Theatre. 

“Virtually every major theater artist of the first half of the 20th century in America and much of Europe played in the Hanna Theatre,” Fee said. “So, it’s just a huge gift as an artist to work in that space, refurbish that space and work in a community that supports classic theater.”


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